STOP the jobs bloodbath in the steel industry, South African trade union leaders are demanding after meetings with the government and business failed on Friday.
Some economists calculate that the entire steel industry is almost certain to collapse, should no government intervention be made, with 190,000 jobs on the line – 50,000 of those being in the steel industry.
Companies considering retrenchment or closing shop include Arcelor Mittal in Vereeniging, Evraz Highveld Steel in Mpumalanga and the Scaw Metals Group. On Friday the unions – including Solidarity, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), Metal and the Allied Workers Union of SA plus the UASA and the metals bargaining council – met with the government and business behind closed doors in Pretoria.
Early on Friday morning before the meeting, Numsa General Secretary Irvin Jim said: ‘The agenda of this meeting is to get a firm commitment from government to reassess their policies which are sweeping away jobs in the steel industry and might lead to workers and their families having to live without a plate of food on the table, amidst the crisis of poverty, unemployment and inequality which is ravaging working class and poor households in South Africa today.’
He continued: ‘To us this meeting is about defending jobs, but most importantly we want the government’s change of heart in relation to the reintroduction of steel price tariffs. The country’s political alliance with China is becoming problematic for our economy and workers in particular.
‘The dumping of steel by the Chinese in our country is destroying jobs, so we need government’s intervention.
‘Lastly, the manufacturing sector has the potential to grow our economy so that much needed jobs can be created, therefore government must champion a radical re-industrialisation agenda in the interest of our economy and people at large. The current engagements between all the parties are happening within the context of our ailing economy that is not creating enough decent jobs, to accommodate the large army of the unemployed that is ravaged by squalor in our working class townships, inferior squatter camps and former Bantustan areas.
‘This ugly reality has imposed a heavy socio-economic burden on the employed workers to subsidise the unemployed, amidst the triple challenge of poverty, unemployment and inequality’. The Friday meeting followed the formation of a task team during three months of negotiations through the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration, after Section 189 notices were issued.
Some of the industry’s plants are also to be closed completely or mothballed, while others have already operated for months on short time.
The near collapse of the steel industry comes as the government is trying to prevent the loss of thousands of jobs in the gold and platinum industry, while global demand for these minerals has fallen dramatically amid a global downturn. Trade union Solidarity’s head of metal and engineering, Marius Croucamp, said Friday’s meeting was seized with discussing ten issues, but that the government did not make any immediate offers to stop the job losses.
The government was represented by Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies, and Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel. Neither ministry was immediately available for comment. Croucamp said that there was no immediate relief for either workers or the companies involved.
‘There was nothing that government could offer to stop it.
‘For example, putting tariffs on steel will require a process to follow including public hearings,’ Croucamp said. ‘If government does not go through the process they will face legal action. Tariffs would have to be on different types of steel. Government is not prepared to short-circuit the process.’
”Unions have been calling for stricter anti-dumping laws, by increasing import taxes on certain listed types of steel so they don’t stream into the country. But industry will apply for those (anti-dumping laws) to stop it from happening. There will be different applications from each company. In Mittal’s case, it will submit applications by the end of the month. But it will take months before this will work to stop job losses,’ Croucamp said.
He said there was a very high probability that the entire steel industry would collapse, with Mittal threatening to close its plants in Vereeniging. Plants in Van der Bijl Park, Saldanha Bay and Newcastle are also at risk. Scaw Metals is closing three plants, so is not simply retrenching some staff. Companies will shut down furnaces if they are not selling.
‘There is an over-supply of steel in the world. The Chinese are dumping but their steel is highly subsidised. Our companies cannot compete with that,’ Croucamp said. He said unions had also complained in Friday’s meeting about problems with procurement, for example the purchase of trains from Spain and general state infrastructure construction.
There was however some hope that when the country’s train tracks were revamped this could serve as an opportunity to use South African produced steel again. Retrenchments, following the Sect 189 process begun in June, are set to begin next month. Solidarity represents employees at 26 companies, but 75 companies are already operating on short time.
However, the closed door meeting between Labour leaders led by Numsa’s General Secretary Irvin Jim, and big business last Friday amidst the looming jobs loss bloodbath in one of South Africa’s most strategic sectors of the economy, the steel sector, will not be able to stop a massive amount of jobs lost in the coming few months.
A common front between the employers and the trade unions will not save the jobs of South African workers. The trade unions must demand the immediate expropriation of the threatened industries and that they be put under workers management. The factories and mines must be occupied to stop their closure.
Workers must demand that all trade unions break with the ANC government that has managed South African capitalism since the end of apartheid, at the expense of the working class, and campaign for a Workers and Small Farmers Government that will carry out socialist policies across the board.